Ancient Sound Announces New Year
Jewish Children Learn to Make, Appreciate Shofars
By Cary McMullen
Lakeland Ledger Religion Editor
The basement of Temple Emanuel is a three-ring circus of noise. There is the noise of excited chatter from small children, teenagers and adults. There is the noise of tools at work — saws, drills, a belt sander. And occasionally, trumpeting through it all, is the hollow ringing bray of a newly created horn being tested — too-OOOO! Tootootootooooo!
Rabbi Uriel Rivkin blows a shofar at a clinic for children at Temple Emanuel in Lakeland. Shofars are used at various occasions in Jewish services, especially prior to and during the High Holy Days.
It’s a visceral sound, ancient, even primitive. It is the same sound that echoed in the hills and courts of Israel in the days of Rabbi Hillel, of King David, of Moses. It’s produced in a simple way — by blowing into a hole cut in the horn of a ram.
For a few hours, the basement of Temple Emanuel, a Conservative synagogue in Lakeland, is a factory to help children make their own shofars, as the ceremonial horns are called in Hebrew. Shofars are used at various occasions in Jewish services, especially prior to and during the High Holy Days. It is blown on Rosh Hashana, the Jewish New Year, which begins at sundown Friday, and it is the last sound heard at the end of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, 10 days later.
Presiding over the chaotic scene is Rabbi Uriel Rivkin, the leader of Young Israel of Tampa, a synagogue affiliated with Chabad Lubavitch, an Orthodox Jewish movement dedicated to educating Jews about their faith and helping them practice it. On a table next to him are a few dozen rams’ horns. They curve in a graceful spiral into a near-circle about a foot across. The light-brown surface is not rough but richly ribbed and knurled. They are purchased from an import company that gets them from countries such as India.
Rivkin is a husky, cheerful man with a dark, curly beard. He is dressed in a white shirt and dark pants, and the fringe of his prayer garment that marks him as an observant Orthodox dangles below his shirt. He gets the attention of the dozen or so kids present and gives them a brief lesson. The sound of the shofar, he says, is like an alarm clock.
“A great rabbi, Maimonides, said, `Wake up! We want to be better than we were last year. Let us wake up!’ It is a shrill, simple cry, saying, `Father, help us!’ It’s a cry beyond words.”
During the High Holy Days, Jews reflect on their actions of the past year and ask forgiveness from God and those they have wronged. The shofar is supposed to be blown each morning for a month before Rosh Hashana as a reminder to prepare for the holidays. Then, during the worship service on Rosh Hashana, 100 blasts from the shofar are sounded. Anyone who knows how to blow the three kinds of notes — long, wailing and short — on the shofar can participate, says Rabbi Eddie Fox, the leader of Temple Emanuel.
“We have kids stationed all around the room. At the proper time, I call out what to blow. The last blow, the hundredth, is the gadol, or great, and they hold it as long as they can. Finally, it gets down to two guys, then one. It’s beautiful,” he says.
There are only a few rules that govern making a shofar. The horns cannot be removed from the animal while it is alive because of a Jewish law forbidding cruelty to animals. The only holes allowed in the shofar are at each end, which leads to concern occasionally when a drill slips and puts a mark on the outside of the horn.
A shofar may be made from any kosher animals, which do not have split hooves but do chew cud. There is one exception — a cow’s horn can’t be used, because according to a story in the Bible, the people of Israel as they were fleeing Egypt worshiped a golden calf, committing idolatry. Rams’ horns are preferred because in the story in which God commands Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac, a ram is substituted at the last moment.
“We don’t want to remind God of our sins. We want to remind God of our dedication,” Rivkin tells the kids.
He and a few assistants set about helping the kids make the shofars. They quickly discover it is hard work. The end of the horn first must be sawed off with a hacksaw. The younger children watch as adults and older kids struggle to cut through the horn, leaving a fine powder on the tables. Rivkin then takes an electric drill and bores through the end to reach the hollow part of the horn, taking care not to gouge through the side. The rough edges are sanded off with a belt sander.
He tests it, holding a finger against his lips to help direct the air into the small hole. It usually takes a few rounds of drilling and testing before he can coax the characteristic, reverberating tone from the horn. During the 2hour workshop, about three dozen kids will get their own shofars to take home.
Nine-year-old Angelika Hirsch of Winter Haven says it’s better than the cardboard tube she used to pretend was a shofar. Elevenyear-old Mark Lipson of Lakeland says he already has a shofar and knows how to blow it: “It’s an alarm and a sign of joy.”
Learning to blow the shofar was easy for 12-year-old Alec Milabetz, who plays trumpet in the band at Daniel Jenkins Academy in Haines City. But he says it’s not as easy to practice his faith and heritage among teachers and students who are not Jews.
“It’s crazy. I’m the only Jewish kid in school. It’s painful . . . because I don’t have anyone to discuss it with,” says Alec, a seventh-grader.
“I try to explain to my friends, but they really don’t get it,” adds Julia Sedloff, 12, a seventh-grader at Lake Gibson Middle School in Lakeland.
Cheryl Mintz, a member of Temple Emanuel who arranged for Rivkin to come and lead the workshop, says she has made a determined effort over the years to educate the teachers and administrators at her daughter’s public schools.
“The thing that concerns me is prejudice. I encourage parents to go into the classroom. I leave religion out of it and talk about customs,” she says.
Mintz says she goes to classrooms and brings challah, the egg bread used at Sabbath and holiday meals, or hamentoshen, the cookies consumed at Purim. Everyone in the schools is understanding, she says, and kids will stop her in the halls, asking when she will bring more challah.
“All my friends want to be Jewish,” quips Mintz’s daughter, 12-year-old Sarah Flax, a seventh-grader at Lawton Chiles Middle Academy.
That kind of educational effort is characteristic of the Chabad Lubavitchers, a small but visible movement whose members are strict in their practices but energetic in reaching out to other Jews.
“Of all Jews in the world, these are the ones I love the most, because they accept all Jews,” says Rabbi Fox.
Rivkin and members of his synagogue conduct as many as 10 shofar workshops in the weeks leading up to Rosh Hashana. Before Hanukkah, they conduct workshops on how to make lamp oil from olives, and before Passover they demonstrate how to make matzo.
“There’s nothing like being connected with Judaism through hands-on activities. It helps kids be excited about the holidays and their heritage,” Rivkin says.
“I think they’re keeping the religion alive. They welcome everybody. They’re warm and folksy. At their services. They sing and dance,” Mintz says.
Rivkin pauses a moment while drilling into a horn. He has powder and bits of horn in his beard and hair and on his kippah, his skullcap. He is clearly tired, but he smiles.
“We’re keeping the commandment of God, on the first day of the new year to blow the ram’s horn. We’re proud to be here 3,000 years later keeping the commandment.”
Cary McMullen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 863-802-7509.